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We all would like to create a classroom environment where productive discussion leads to learning, but how can we set up students for this type of success? Some students are reluctant to speak, while others have no reservations about dominating the conversation. The Discussing Discussions workshop explores the theory and practice of classroom discussions, identifying specific techniques and strategies while discussing the advantages and disadvantages of each.


Harvard Leading Discussions Handbook: This discussion guide was produced by The Derek Bok Center For Teaching and Learning at Harvard University for the graduate Teaching Fellows program. This guide provides an overview of the purpose of discussion in the learning process and practical tools to build productive and diverse discussions among your students. This guide is also used with Dartmouth's Learner Fellows program.

CRTL_Discussion_Worksheets.docx: The Center for Research on Teaching and Learning at the University of Michigan provides these tools for increasing inclusivity in classroom discussions at their workshops. Full of ideas for approaching difficult situations, these worksheets are a great reflection activity.

Peer Review Questions for Discussions: One technique for dealing with the dreaded problem of "participation points" is to ask students to assess each other following a discussion. This rubric can be modified to meet your own needs.

Faculty Focus Discussion Self Assessment: Looking for some great ideas on how to measure what really matters in a discussion? This article encourages student-awareness about the goals of a discussion, which increases student investment in a successful outcome.

Universal Design for Learning Guidelines: The Universal Design for Learning framework asks you to consider multiple means of engagement in a discussion: perhaps you offer participation for either an in-person discussion OR one that happens asynchronously on Canvas.

Discussion Activity Idea: The Popsicle Stick Campfire (can also use Poker Chips)

Objective: Encourage all students to participate while also building empathy among dominant talkers, encouraging thoughtful deliberate contributions.

Steps: Each student receives 3 popsicle sticks at the beginning of a discussion - a green (labeled Go), a yellow (labeled Slow), and a red (labeled Stop). When the student speaks, they throw a popsicle stick into the "campfire" in the middle of the group - first green, then yellow, and finally red. Once a student has thrown their last popsicle stick, they cannot speak again until all students have thrown their sticks and the campfire discussion is blazing hot!

Note: Of course this method can be accomplished without the colors, though some students respond to the go--slow--stop.

Have you ever read a student's term paper or research paper and thought, "This is so good that the rest of the world should see it"? But how?  Where? Read on for an assignment idea that you may like to try in your courses.

WHY ask students to contribute?

Professor Katherine Mirica (CHEM) knew that her CHEM 157 students had much to contribute to the world's knowledge base in the rapidly evolving field of nanomaterials.  Learning objectives for students in this course include:

  • Analysis and evaluation of the structure and properties of nanomaterials, including their capabilities and limitations
  • Engagement in conversation, both local and global, about these materials
  • Enhancement of scientific writing and presentation skills

A project asking students to develop and share their ideas by contributing to the world's biggest online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, helped Katherine's students to best meet these objectives.  The students enthusiastically undertook this challenge, contributing to the world's knowledge base in a truly authentic manner.

Motivated by their own experiences with the content, and with Wikipedia, research began.  One student commented about feeling glad to have a chance to contribute to Wikipedia in a meaningful way; he had used the site frequently himself.  Frequently faculty warn students about using Wikipedia as a reference source; this is a very different approach.

HOW can students contribute?

Wikipedia was a perfect choice for this course because the information on these materials changes so quickly.  Throughout the course of the term, students in CHEM157 went through the following steps:

  1. Selected a topic.  Students were asked to pick a topic based not only on their interest, but by reviewing the existing information available on Wikipedia.  Students were most interested in updating current entries that were vague, with minimal (or even incorrect) information.
  2. Created outlines.  Students mapped their plans to present the information they discovered in their literature reviews and research on Wikipedia.  They were asked to think about a global audience, using as many illustrations (either open access or created by the students) as possible.
  3. Draft of a Wikipedia page for peer review.
  4. Revise based on peer review and submit to Professor.
  5. Edit and post on Wikipedia!
  6. Share.  Students also completed in-class presentations on their topic.
WHAT did students contribute?

Michael Ko worked on Wikipedia's page on Carbon Nanotubes.  This was a great example of an older page (it's been around since 2001). Michael chose to work on this page because it was incomplete and out of date.  He added a section on the modification of Carbon Nanotubes, citing a number of new papers that had been published since the page was last updated.

Selbi Nuryyeva had a different experience.  Prior to her work, there was a Wikipedia entry for Phospherene, but since the material was just discovered in 2014, and the field is rapidly evolving, the page had much room for improvement.  Selbi read about phosphorene in Scientific American at the beginning of term, and was motivated to learn more.  She created images based on the research she read.  When her classmate asked Selbi what was the most difficult aspect of the project, she replied, "Every time I stopped researching (in order to write the page), there was a bunch of new information!"

Click below to see the pages created by each of the Chem 157 Fall term students.  PLEASE NOTE: These pages may have been edited since the students last posted - click the View History tab to learn how they've changed over time.


Professor and students
Professor Katherine Mirica (left) and the students of Fall 2015 Chem 157
Advice for trying this in your class

Professor Mirica and her students have some suggestions for those who might be attempting an assignment like this in the future.  The first revolves around the challenge of editing information that has already been written.  When attempting a massive change, the students were forced to consider the best ways to organize and present the story.  When one student attempted to make major revisions but deleting what had been there, the student was flagged as a possible vandal by Wikipedia.  Therefore:

Tip 1: Make incremental changes.  Do not remove entire sections at once, but rather add as needed.  Additionally, keep your text and references in another tool while working - large wiki pages can sometimes crash in the middle of your editing process.

Tip 2: Search images that are already on Wikipedia before creating your own - there is a wealth of illustrations that can be used to describe multiple phenomena.

Tip 3: Allow enough time to iterate drafts, find or create images, and give/receive feedback before posting a final version to Wikipedia.

Finally, watch what happens when your classroom meets the world!